U.S. Judge Denies Ireland's Request to Extradite
The Reverend George Exoo for "Assisting a Suicide"
On Friday, October 26, 2007, U.S. District Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort decreed that the United States would not extradite The Reverend George David Exoo. The sixty-five-year-old Harvard Divinity School graduate, an ordained Unitarian minister, human rights activist, and leading-edge trailblazer in the international Right-to-Die Movement, faced charges of "assisting a suicide" in Ireland. The judge found that neither federal nor a preponderance of U.S. state laws would support a conviction for any wrongdoing on Exoo's part. Since 2002 the case had drawn considerable international attention. If the complex, contradictory laws that governed the case had worked against him, Exoo would have become the first person to be extradited from any country on an "assisting a suicide" charge.
Click here for VanDervort's official 32-page legal opinion.
Exoo broke into tears of joy as the judge declared him a free man and immediately ordered him released from custody. His supporters in the audience gallery also wept with relief and jubilation and hugged each other, knowing that their four-month vigil of support could now end. If the complex, contradictory laws that governed the case had worked against him, Exoo would have become the first person to be extradited from any country on an assisted suicide charge. As soon as the judge finished reading a summary of his ruling, Exoo was immediately set free. After being released from his handcuffs and leg chains, he traded in his torn, orange prison jumpsuit, put on his blue blazer, grey slacks, black shoes, and clerical collar. "I was pleased by the judge's ruling,"Exoo said with a smile outside the courthouse. "That's about all I can say."
Dr. Cassandra Mae, a friend of Exoo's who had flown in from North Carolina for the hearing, said she thought that Judge VanDervort's ruling showed good sense. "I'm absolutely thrilled that he is not going to an Irish prison," she stated, suspecting that his views on suicide would not be embraced in a largely Catholic country. "In my opinion, I don't think he did anything wrong. All he did was provide comfort." After offering his prison-issued brown-bag lunch -- a plain bologna sandwich, an orange, and cookies -- to reporters, he was driven off to a celebratory luncheon by his friends and members of his present and past congregations. Within eight hours after his release, supporters from fourteen countries had sent him over six hundred congratulatory emails.
Some time before his arrest seemed imminent, he informed his colleagues at an euthanasia conference that he would rather die than be extradicted to Ireland and be falsely convicted of assisting a suicide and face fourteen years imprisonment in an Irish jail.
The Ultimate Question
Many people have beloved friends or family members who are in unending, unendurable pain; trapped in a ruined body; terminally ill; or just old, fragile, and tired of life and want to make a swift, painless departure from this earth by their own hands, while they still have control of their lives. How would you respond to such a person's plea to help them have a peaceful death if they requested your presence?
The Reverend George Exoo has heard this plea many times and has responded with compassion. Exoo had traveled to Dublin in January 2002 to provide Rosemary Toole, then 48, with pastoral counseling, prayer, and to lend a compassionate presence as she ended her own life by her own hand by taking a massive overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol and by inhaling helium gas. This method of suicide is explained in the international best-selling book, Final Exit, by Derek Humphry, founder of The Hemlock Society USA.
On June 24, 2004, the Dublin Metropolitan District Court issued a warrent for his arrest, stating that he had "aided and abettted" and "counseled" the suicide of Rosemary Toole. In Ireland, that offense is a felony offense carrying a maximum penalty of fourteen years in jail.
After three years of legal wrangling, federal agents, acting on the request of the Irish government, arrested Exoo at his home in Beckley, West Virginia on June 25, 2007. Although convicted of no crime, he spent the next 121 days in jail awaiting the judge's ruling on whether or not the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Ireland applied to him. His case was unique, because although assisting a suicide is a felony under Irish law, there is no equivalent federal law in the U.S., nor in Exoo's home state of West Virginia. Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip H. Wright, acting in behalf of the Irish government, argued that, if assisting a suicide is a felony in a majority of U.S. states, Exoo should be extradited--although he admitted that extradition for this charge had never been done before. "I haven't been able to find a case where they actually went to that stage," Wright stated. Wright's argument did not convince the judge, and Exoo is now a free man.
Exoo had always admitted being present as Toole took her own life, but stated unequivocally that he took no active role whatsoever in assisting or hastening her death. He emphasized that his actions consisted solely of counseling, compassion, and prayer. The Harvard Divinity School graduate noted that every year, thousands of ministers routinely provide compassionate spiritual presence and pray with dying people. "If comforting and praying with a dying person is either a sin or a crime, then most of the ministers, priests, and rabbis in America, Ireland, and the rest of the world must be sinners, criminals, or both," Exoo said.
Richard N. Côté, Exoo's volunteer media representative, friend, and colleague since 1979, and a ten-year member of Exoo's congregation while he served as minister of the Unitarian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, said that "George Exoo's vindication is proof positive that the governments of the world are finally starting to catch up with the will of the people: namely, to acknowledge that the right to die with dignity at the time of one's own choice is a fundamental, immutable human right, and not a privilege to be defined, granted, or denied by officials of either the church or the state."
After regaining his health, which suffered during his incarceration, Exoo has stated that he plans to renew his work to establish a hospice for those stricken by AIDS, a public service project upon which he had been working for during the ten years prior to his arrest. He also planned to immediately resume his parish ministry, and plans to lead services on Sunday, October 28 at his Universalist congregation in Lewisburg, West Virginia.
At the August hearing, the judge was expected to rule whether or not Ireland could prove valid legal grounds for Exoo's extradition. Exoo said he conformed his actions to American law. It is not illegal in the United States to sit with people as they kill themselves as long as they obtained and administered their own means of death, according to The American Bar Association's Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly.
The Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina, 1977-1987
In 1973, his interests in social action soon surfaced. In 1977, he was called to the historic pulpit of the Unitarian Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1772, it is the oldest Unitarian congregation in the South. Then as now, the church is an anachronism: a bastion of liberal, inclusive theology in a state known for its rock-ribbed conservative Christian orthodoxy. In Charleston, Exoo gained considerable attention on several fronts. His passion for musicology greatly enhanced the sophistication of the congregation's choir and organ repertoires. However, the aging congregation he inherited had a contentious past and a reputation for chewing up and quickly spitting out ministers. The congregation had not experienced any significant growth in many years. Exoo soon undertook a number of successful (and, to some, controversial) efforts to expand and diversify the membership base. These included organizing Charleston's first church-supported singles' group, known as "New Wine;" encouraging the development of a support group for gays and lesbians; and actively supporting civil and religious liberties. Exoo also served as chaplain/advisor to On Our Own, a group comprised of formerly hospitalized mental patients in Charleston.
In addition, Exoo successfully expanded interfaith ties among Charleston's Unitarian, Jewish, and African-American congregations. This work led to his being elected to two terms as president of The Charleston Ministerial Association, a racially mixed organization. Exoo also conducted an inter-racial pulpit exchange with the Reverend Frank Portee of Charleston's Centenary Methodist Church. That was the first such exchange in Charleston. Exoo served the city as an unpaid chaplain for the Charleston Police Department from 1982 to 1987, counseling police officers, their families, and victims of tragedy who were suffering trauma and personal loss. Exoo also actively lobbied for the 1985 passage in South Carolina of Living Will legislation and infant auto seat legislation.
One of Exoo's first encounters with self-deliverance came in 1995, when he and the wife of a close friend comforted the woman's husband as he took his own life. The man was in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." The disease kills the nerve cells that control the muscles, but the slow and certain death does not rob the victims of their mental facilities, making the progressive and irreversible losses tragically more horrifying to them every day. The man's wife bought him the best-selling book by Derek Humphry titled Final Exit. It is a how-to book on committing suicide by using medicines commonly found around the house or devices available legally at any big-box department store. With his wife and Exoo at his side, reminiscing about the good times, the man rapidly consumed a handful of crushed sedative pills mixed into applesauce, and washed the mixture down with a stiff cocktail, knowing that alcohol would accelerate the effect of the sleeping pills. A short time later, while Exoo was reading aloud The Lord's Prayer, he died.
The Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation
In 1997, Josephine Koss and George Exoo, both Hemlock Society members living in the Pittsburgh area, registered "Hemlock of Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia" with the West Virginia Department of Tax and Revenue as a non-profit organization. Koss and four others were its initial officers; Exoo served as chaplain. In the following years, Exoo, often with the help of volunteers from this and other like-minded euthanasia groups, gave advice, counsel, and comforting spiritual presence to over one hundred people who wanted to die with dignity, but who were afraid to do so alone. Also in 1997, Exoo and Koss founded and registered The Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation, now headquartered in Beckley, West Virginia. This organization is a state-licensed, federally-registered Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which provides end-of-life counseling and compassionate terminal assistance to those whose lives have become insurmountably, unrelentingly, and endlessly painful and wish to end their lives at their own chosen times.
Rumor: Exoo was paid a fee by Rosemary Toole to help her take her life. Irish, British, and American broadcast and print media made the following baseless, unresearched claims, none of which are either factual or supported by evidence:
An unidenitified reporter from The Belfast (Northern Ireland) Telegraph, quoting The Irish Times (who denied having made the statement), stated on February 4, 2002
On December 18, 2005, more than three years after Toole's death, George Clogg, of The (London) Sunday Miror was still erroneously claiming the alleged fee was £7,000 (approximately $9,800 in 2002). Read the Sunday Miror story here.
On July 18, 2007, more than five years after Toole's death, Matthew Hill, reporter for the The Beckley, West Virginia Register Herald wrote that "Investigators believe that Exoo was paid $6,000 to participate in the woman's death." This repeated the same false and undocumented facts that newspaper published on June 27, June 29, September 8, and October 26, 2007. Read the June 29, 2007 Register-Herald story here.
On September 11, 2007, also more than five years after Toole's death, Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ), which is owned and operated by the Irish government, stated in a television report that "Exoo and his partner admitted that they were paid $7,000." Neither Exoo nor McGurrin ever stated any such thing. Read the RTÉ story here.
Fact: Neither Exoo nor McGurrin received any money whatsoever for any services rendered to Toole, only reimbursement for their actual expenses. Exoo was reimbursed a total of US $2,500 for the out-of-pocket costs he and his colleague, McGurrin, incurred for the purchase of two economy-class, round-trip airline tickets between the United States and Ireland; the cost of their hotel lodging; and the cost of a rental car while providing prayer and compassionate presence in Dublin when Ms. Toole committed suicide. They paid all their own expenses while traveling elsewhere in Europe. The $2,5000 sum for expense reimbursement was accurately stated numerous times in the offficial Irish legal records provided to the U.S. Department of State. All other sums reported by newspapers were either sloppy guesses, unconfirmed rumors, or outright fabrications.
Rumor: Exoo and McGurrin fled Ireland for The Dominican Republic in Central America after the suicide to avoid arrest.
Fact: This nonsense was fabricated and published in 2002 by an Irish tabloid. Exoo was informed of this allegation by an Irish journalist who met him at his home when he returned from Ireland. Exoo and McGurrin had planned and budgeted their own funds for a vacation in Ireland, Holland, and Germany prior to Ms. Toole contacting them. After her suicide in Dublin, they proceeded with their planned vacation and flew, as scheduled and booked in advance, on regular commercial flights within Europe and never to Central America. Irish and British authorities had all this information at their fingertips and could have checked their advance airline reservations at any time to know exactly where and when they would be traveling.
Rumor: The Reverend Exoo is a "former minister."
Fact: After graduating with a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (S.T.B.) degree from Harvard Divinity School, one of the world's most highly-regarded and intellectually demanding religious educational institutions, Exoo was ordained a minister by Boston's First Church (Unitarian-Universalist) on January 4, 1974. His ordination is valid for life, and has never been challenged or revoked. Until his arrest, he was ministering to the Greenbriar Spiritual Community in Lewisburg, West Virginia, and looks forward to resuming his work with that congregation upon his release. Exoo, known for his extraordinary writings and sermons, is welcome to accept a call from any Unitarian or Universalist church or congregation worldwide -- or any other church of any other denomination, for that matter -- which chooses to call him. He spent his time in jail practicing the calling of a minister: caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of his fellow prisoners. He taught them peaceful conflict resolution techniques, held Bible discussions, and lead prayer and meditation sessions.
George Exoo portrait, top of page, right: courtesy of John Clark, Medical University of South Carolina.
George Exoo small portrait, above "Biography" link and interior ceiling, Unitarian Church of Charleston: by the late Kirk Prouty, Charleston, South Carolina.
The quotation from Derek Humphry's Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying (New York: Dell Publishing, 2002, 3rd edition, revised, with supplement), is used with permision of the author.